Key to stress in poker is what you do with it



The No. 1 psychological problem people face is stress. A certain amount of stress is good. Some folks have conceptualized stress as (good) eustress vs. (bad) distress.

Distressis the most commonly thought of type of stress, having negative implications, whereaseustressis a positive form of stress, usually related to desirable events in a person’s life.

Both can be equally taxing on the body, and are cumulative in nature, depending on a person’s way of adapting to a change that has caused the stress. The body cannot discern between good and bad stress. From a psychological perspective, we look to a 1975 article, in which Hans Selye talked about how persistent stress that’s not resolved through coping or adaptation, deemed distress, may lead to anxiety, withdrawal or depressive-like behavior.

In contrast, if the stress involved enhances function physical or mental, such as through challenging work, it may be considered eustress or good stress or necessary stress and can be mentally productive. It has been suggested that without a certain amount of stress we wouldn’t get off our duffs.

This may be a useful way of looking at how stress affects poker play. So the issue with stress is not that it exists, but instead how we handle it and use stress to our competitive advantage. Personal management of stress is the way to view this at the table and in life.

First, too much stress can cause negative performance results. Mental stress can hurt your performances in a variety of ways. It can have physiological effects: increased heart rate or muscle tension, for example, and these might affect your performance but they can affect the mental game, too. Stress interferes with mentally managing your sessions and your life; instead of a state of “relaxed activation” you may become preoccupied by stressful thoughts and feelings that will affect your performance. You may overreact or under react to a situation. Poker is a game in which one wants to be able to control as much as possible; so many things are out of our control that working on personal control may prove to be the most useful endeavor.

Distress comes to us in life and before our sessions and should be managed before coming to the table. Coming to the table is not the way to deal with stress. It’s counter-productive.

One of the most widely know stress management tools is called “stress inoculation training,” first developed by Donald Meichenbaum, a psychologist in the ’80s. Stress inoculation provides people who experience a great deal of stress ways to learn how to manage it in productive and in our case competitive ways. There are techniques which can provide you another level of person control.

What can you do? First identify if distress is affecting you, because it will affect your game. Is the stress poker-related or related to the rest of your life?

If you are under a lot of personal or professional stress, you have to let it go when you come to the table. Playing poker is not the way to relieve this stress. Some gamblers and many slot players gamble as a way to deal with their stress. This creates significant problems for them and is not a functional way of coping. If your personal stress is overwhelming, get professional consultation. Poker is enough of a challenge so as not to bring your personal stress to the table.

Do deep breathing exercises. Breath in through you nose to a count of three and hold it for a count of three and breathe out for a count of three. Do this five minutes a day for a week and then go to two five-minute sessions. This will not only allow you to experience a brief period of relaxation but it’s something you can call upon when you are stressed. Once you get this down and start feeling stressed, usually a couple of deep breaths will calm you down.

Breathing is the first step of using imagery. After you practice these breathing techniques, use a breathing session to visualize situations that are likely to be stressful and use all of your senses to actually picture a desired outcome. Try to be in the stress-producing situation in your mind and visualize a better outcome; see yourself relaxed; in control of your game; making good decisions; playing correctly.

Self-talk is a proven method of coping with stress. Say positive things to yourself, create a positive and winning attitude. This will build your confidence and give you greater resilience. When you drive to the room use self-talk to put yourself in a good frame of mind. “I am going to enjoy this session; I have the skills to play right; I accept bad beats and the variance; I will make the best decision with the information I have at the time; if I lose a hand I will move on; tilt is not me; I can afford to play.” Or whatever else works for you. A coach or psychologist can work with you in relatively quick time to develop this self-talk.

With so many uncontrollable things in poker, personal control may be the best way to work toward peak performance. Use these techniques to keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine